This essay analyzes the mental phenomenon of mysticism in detail, speculating on both its epistemological and historical origins. Both the errors and positive contributions of mysticism are discussed, as well as some speculations on why mysticism and mystical beliefs continue to have a significant influence in modern life and art. In the process of this inquiry, some epistemological ideas are reviewed and/or developed which may be of useful explanatory power in the larger topic of epistemology.
Webster's New World dictionary gives two definitions for 'mysticism':
The second definition will be the definition I build upon for purposes of the discussion to follow. Mysticism is both a set of beliefs and the methods for arriving at those beliefs. It is the habit of thought that leads to concepts and metaphors about the universe, and it is the set of concepts and metaphors that habit of thought leads to. The main procedures for arriving at mystical beliefs are imagination and intuition (which I'll define for discussion later). Generally, mystical beliefs are beliefs about the "higher", "transcendental" nature of the universe and, quite often how this relates to the "lower", "material" nature of the universe.
Mysticism has negative connotations as well. In this modern age among intellectuals, the term "mysticism" is not generally a flattering label for a set of beliefs. It implies a kind of irresponsible, sloppy mode of thinking which leads to faulty conclusions and misconceptions about the world we live in. Though we do not necessarily abuse their moral character, we are prone to doubt the quality of the ideas and even intelligence of a believer or practitioner of the "arcane arts".
Mystics are good people, only they are apt to drool. Ivan Lapshin (Scriabin, vol. 2, p. 69)
Mystics in history, it's true, have made a number of inane pronouncements, to whit: the existence of miracles such as virgin births and resurrections, the ability to predict the future by gazing at the stars or a spread of cards, or powers to change remote events through chanting or ritual. I will begin by readily admitting my own position and agreeing with the people who complain about these things. Whether or not it is right to throw stones, I have often found myself exasperated with the notion that so many people in this day and age still take magic and miracles seriously.
Yet, there is something seductive about mysticism, even for skeptics like myself. Against my more "Apollonian", rational pretensions, I find myself drawn towards such composers as Alexander Scriabin and such poets as William Blake and on occasion to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer or metaphysical belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. There are two main reasons, I think, for this. The first is that there is an intense vital energy that flows in the works of the mystically inclined artist and thinker (what Nietzsche would have called a "Dionysian" spirit). Emotions are stirred and we get a sense of the world being alive and mysterious when we attend to the works and ideas of a mystic. The second reason is that there is a nagging feeling that in the ideas of many of these thinkers and artists there are profound truths lurking which are often missed in the process of dutiful and rigorous analysis of empirical facts.
There are many places one may go to find Truth. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with this, so we'll begin with some observations and arguments in that domain.
2.1 Induction from Passive Observation
First and foremost, we may directly, but passively observe the world with our own senses and draw conclusions based on the observations we've been privy to via our experience. This I'll call the method of induction from passive observation. We learn in this manner how to categorize the entities we encounter in our environment, to make associations between these entities and traits we think they have, and to predict what kinds of things are likely to happen given what our senses currently tell us. I would propose that observation (both passive, and active, as discussed later) and subsequent induction is the chief mechanism (and, in some sense, the only mechanism) by which we arrive at Truth. It must be emphatically stated, however, that the certainty of our knowledge is already in peril because a personalmost any person, in factwill be prone to over-generalize based on a few insufficiently representative observations. (For example, a person may decide that because every person of a particular race he's met has been a criminal then all persons of that race are criminals: hence the phenomenon of racism.)
2.2 Deductive Logic
The next means of arriving at Truth is to use logic to deduce new conclusions based on premises we trust: the method of deductive logic. There is a kind of "air-tightness" to deductive logic that has made it the darling of philosophers and thinkers throughout history. If your premises are true and the steps of your logic are sound, then your conclusions will be true. The problem is that the truth of premises is usually open to question because the premises are formed by the other modes of Truth-finding, e.g. observation and induction, and none of these carry as much certainty in their validity. Medieval scholastics were dauntingly clever logicians, but they used their logic to vainly draw conclusions from questionable premises which they nonetheless rarely questioned.
2.3 Authority Consultation
The next method of Truth-seeking is to consult other people or institutions we trust: the method of authority consultation. This may be through conversation or through reading but the result is that we find ourselves dependent on the soundness of thinking of the person or persons we're consulting. Caveat emptor! ("Let the buyer beware!") However, given the mind-boggling complexity of society in the information-age, we cannot avoid this. Nor, arguably, could our forefathers in their much simpler times in history. Our lives are too short to methodically re-derive all of the conclusions of Newton, Einstein, Fourier, etc. from scratch. To proceed, we must often "stand on the shoulders of giants," now and then pausing to check whether the giants we've chosen are still good giants to stand on.
2.4 Induction from Active Observation
Next, there is the method of play and experiment: the method of induction from active observation. We act upon our environment and observe what effects our actions have, finally inducing conclusions based on this. Scientific experimentation is a special case of this mode of Truth-gathering. This is subject to the same errors as passive observation is, but is an excellent means of uncovering causal relationships between phenomena.
2.5 Imagination (Active Simulated Observation)
Related to the method of active observation is the method of imagination. To use imagination is to construct internal observations in the mind and draw conclusions from these. It might be called the method of active simulated observation because, instead of exploring our real sensory environment, we are forming observations in our mind based on truths gathered in other ways and then turning our inductive attention to these inner observations. It should be observed here that the validity of the conclusions derived from imagination depends on the premises that went into the formation of the imagined observations.
Finally, there is that mercurial and easily misunderstood method of intuition. In my view, intuition is not magic or in any way supernatural. It is merely unconscious induction. It is well-known that when we learn a skillfor example, driving a car or dancingparts of that skill become unconscious. Initially, we have to pay close conscious attention to what we're doing, and we are therefore awkward at it. In time, however, the simple elements of the skill we're learning become "automatized" and our conscious mind, with its limited focal capacity, is able to concentrate on higher-level aspects of the skill. Can we doubt that conceptualization is also a skill and that parts of it may become automatized as well?
There is a story about the Romantic English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge regarding Kubla Khan. Hundreds of lines of an entire poem, sprang to his mind in a dream. (He only remembered some enticing fragments and this is what we are left with today.) Coleridge was such a skilled poet that he had undoubtedly automatized much of the creative apparatus that gave rise to his poetry. If he had not spent most of his life consciously perfecting his poetic craft, this seemingly miraculous feat would never have happened.
Intuition is unconscious cognition via the other methods of Truth-seeking so described. We'll cover and critique the method of intuition in more detail soon because it is one of the foundations of mystical belief. Intuition can be a powerful way of arriving at Truth, but its conclusions should be cross-examined with the other methods because it can often be misleading, too. (A gut feeling that something is bad may mean that the something is indeed bad, or that you merely have a "bad gut".)
2.7 Summary of Epistemological Methods of Inquiry
In summary, there are six methods of epistemological inquiry I'm proposing to exist:
There are, to be sure, underlying common principles to these methods, and we will touch on some of these when we begin discussing the epistemological errors mystics make.
Belief in the magical or the miraculous is not limited to the mystic's mind. There are many who believe in these things as a matter of Faith. In practice, this usually means faith in authority: the authority of an institution (e.g., the Church) or scriptures. Generally, the beliefs adhered to are cherished beliefs that the believer derives much psychological benefit from. The faithful usuallythough not alwaysfail to question their set of beliefs because they have no motivation to question them, and indeed, their lives are more comfortable in the beneficent light cast by these beliefs. Not everyone is inclined to be a rebel and a doubter; perhaps we should not be too harsh in our judgment of those who choose not to question. Life is hard enough for an individual without them being forced to carry the "cross of doubt" everywhere with them.
There are also people who take up mystical practices in the hopes that they will acquire arcane skills that will allow them a mastery of the world (and their lives) previously denied them. There are also people who take up mysticism as a kind of fad to impress their friends or to find people to socialize with. In all these cases, the people gain their "spiritual wisdom" by consulting authority. No creativity or critical or independent thought are required for this kind of mystical exploration.
The true mystic, however, is generally of a different stripe. Mystics proper are curious about the inner workings of things; they are people who want to get at inner meaning and the hidden structure of the universe. The mystic shares this with the scientist. In fact, historically, it was the mystic's spirit of inquiry which led to the development of philosophy and (later) science. Whereas the faithful merely consume the ideas of the mysticism, the mystics are the producers of these ideas. The mystic is a creative and intuitive Truth-seeker trying to draw back the Veil of Maya from the universe and see the invisible, hidden truths. We can at very least admire this in them.
The faithful err in their over-reliance on authority. Mystics often share in this error, but we will set this aside in favor of exploring the more primary epistemological errors of mysticism.
4.1 The Perils of Unconscious Reasoning
At the risk of over-generalization, I would say that mystics tend to over-rely on the methods of imagination and intuition and rely too little on observation and logical deduction, which are the more primary sources of knowledge. Many mystics claim that intuition and imagination are the most fundamental modes of Truth-gathering and that these are infallible. In my view, this is the most serious breach of epistemological soundness the mystic makes.
Both intuition and imagination are largely unconscious in their operation. They both make leaps directly to images or conceptual structures which may not be obvious either to observers or the thinkers themselves. Presumably, these leaps happen because parts of the reasoning process are automatized. Most likely, the reasoning is associative in nature. Artificial neural networks have been designed which can do object classification without doing any kind of verbal, symbolic reasoning. When humans perceive and identify an object as an 'apple', this is most certainly an unconscious process. In essence, we see the object and "just have an intuition" that the thing is an apple. A huge component to intuition is probably this kind of nonverbal pattern recognition. Pattern completion, "filling in gaps" or "reading between the lines", something some artificial neural networks are also capable of doing in principle, is another big component for both intuition and especially imagination.
Pattern recognition and pattern completion are not infallible methods of knowledge, however. For pattern recognition, there are problems with "borderline" cases of object identity. (How do we know if someone is "tall" or "old"?) There are also, cases of people being given ill-representative data which leads to over-generalization (covered later). Pattern completion often causes people to see things that don't exist, for example some optical illusions where the brain fills in parts of the pattern visually that are missing from the actual picture. Sometimes when we encounter a new phenomenon, we see only a few features, and then we complete the pattern to get something cozy and familiar which is really wildly different from the actual phenomenon. (Example: when we visit another culture very different from ours we might see someone doing some task and assume, naturally, that they are doing that for the same reasons that people do similar things in our culture, whereas they may be doing something that serves an entirely different function.)
4.2 Universal Sources of Epistemological Error
As far as I can tell, there are three main sources of epistemological error: over-generalization, over-differentiation, and over-filtering. It should be noted that all of these errors stem from the natural operation of information processing mechanisms which are critical to thought and learning.
Generalization is necessary to learn any concept. Every concept stands for an infinite number of concrete perceptual units. The concept for 'apple', in order to be effective, needs to become activated when any specific concrete apple is seen, and this requires generalization from the perceptual data of one or more concrete apples. Over-generalization usually involves making an induction from too few examples. (Neural networks exhibit this very human tendency.) It is this kind of over-generalization that leads to the various prejudices that have plagued human thought and relations for centuries. There is another kind of over-generalization, however, which involves integrating too many wildly variant phenomena under the same concept, for example if we were to claim that an intelligent android was also "human". (This is equivalent to under-differentiation which is the opposite of over-differentiation discussed below.) This is foolish because, even though humans and androids might share the faculty of intellect, they are different in so many other ways that they deserve separate categories. Both kinds of over-generalization lead to misinterpretation of situations and false-predictions (two key negative contributions of mysticism). The key to avoiding over-generalization is to recognize that the concepts built on a person's limited experience may be invalidated, or at least require modification later, in the light of new experience.
Differentiation is also necessary to learn any new concept. This makes intuitive sense because the only way a new concept can be formed is for a person to notice something in the environment which is different than expected and decide that it is different enough to be worth considering a new kind of phenomenon. If I have the concept of 'animal' and I discover that this new animal I'm meeting makes odd meowing sounds and has a long tail and retractable claws, and other kinds of perceptual features you'd expect from a cat, I will have a tendency to regard this as a special type of animal that is interesting and different enough to assign to its own 'cat'-egory. Over-differentiation means deciding too uncritically that a phenomenon is different enough to be worth getting assigned its own concept. An example offered by Ayn Rand is the example of a black swan. If we were to discover such a swan, we might regard it as odd, but we wouldn't assign it to its own concept because it is not essentially a different kind of animal.
The information that impinges on the brain from the human sensorium is vast, so vast that a complete analysis of this data would take years (at very least). The brain gets around this problem by filtering out non-essential information through the mechanisms of attention. This allows us to immediately see what is most immediately important and essential both for our survival and our current goals. Unfortunately, this filter can often filter out useful and important information too. For example, we believe something to be true, we may unconsciously filter out evidence that would disconfirm our beliefs: a phenomenon known as confirmation bias in the sciences.
These are the three fundamental epistemological errors, but this does not address what causes the errors to be made. Two of the most common causes are: having the wrong explanatory concepts (or not enough of them), and emotional modulation (or to put it negatively, corruption) of thought processes. Both of these factors exert an influence through our attention.
The concepts we have available to us shape our expectations of the world and therefore our attention. In effect, our set of concepts provides us with our language for explaining all of our future experiences. (This will be a crucial point to consider when we discuss metaphors later.) If I do not have a concept for 'dog' and I see a dog, I will perceive much of the sensory experience of 'dog', but any of the conceptual information about how dogs in particular (as opposed to other animals) relate to other things will not be present, therefore these relations will never come to the attention of the person until I too have learned the 'dog' concept. My understanding of 'dog' will be in terms of the much more general concept of 'animal' which may not provide enough information for me to know whether I can, for example train him or not. When I finally learn the 'dog' concept, however, I effectively add to my explanatory vocabulary. Not only will I recognize dogs, but I might use the 'dog' concept to explain other things (like being "dogged (i.e. dog-like) in my persistence").
Our emotional state will nudge our attention to things that we unconsciously believe are important to our survival, and emotional state probably also determines when we believe we see a novel occurrence of something (and thus need to differentiate this occurrence from previous ones). It is probable that attention itselfthat is, the actual neurological processes of attention to sensory stimuliis largely driven by emotional state. It is doubtful that thinking and feeling are as separated as people have imagined throughout history. Emotions, however, are intimately tied with the internal state of the body. If a person is famished or in pain or sleep-deprived, their emotions will be affected, and this will corrupt their thought processes. Important information may be filtered out and irrelevant informationwhich leads to over-generalized inductionsmay be highlighted. Both negative and positive emotions can rob a person of a capacity for objectivity by filtering out the activation of concepts that are information-wise the most optimal to have active for an analysis of the situation at hand.
Beliefs that are associated with strong emotions are often especially resistant to change because as soon as the belief is considered, the associated emotion is triggered and this causes the same cognitive biases to be engaged that led to the belief's formation in the first place. Thus, if we were giddily euphoric about a particular idea we came up with about how the universe is full of love and perpetual motion is possible, and we're proven wrong by someone else, it may be hard to change that belief because just thinking about the belief puts us in the same emotional state we were in when we first came up with the idea (and in this case, we may not want to deflate this belief because it brings us pleasure to consider its truth). Likewise, if in a fit of depression, we decide that no-one cares about us so our existence is entirely futile, but later we try to re-examine this negative belief, merely thinking about it will lead us to being depressed again which will encourage us to think that there was maybe something to that belief after all.
Assuming the above principle is an apt observation, probably the best way to deal with maladaptive beliefs that are anchored to strong emotions is to somehow work oneself into the opposite emotional state (or at least a thoroughly neutral state) before seriously attempting to question the belief. Beliefs that do not fit reality can be unlearned if we are able to notice that the belief doesn't correspond with our past or present observations. However, often this isn't immediately possible and active observation may be required because the person's past and current observations are a result of habitual limited exploration of the world.
4.3 Common Errors of the Mystics
One common characteristic of mystical thinking is what has recently been coined as apophenia, which is "the simultaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena" (Skeptic's Dictionary). Divination methods, such as astrology, reading entrails, and in general watching for "omens", are classic manifestations of apophenia: the people who came up with these divinatory systems believe there to be a reliable correlation between the present configuration of celestial bodies, entrail patterns, Nostradamus' quatrains, etc., and events that will happen in the future. Belief in precognitive ESP may well be another instance of apophenia. Belief in magical manipulative powers might also be an instance of apophenia if the believer has correlated a person's strange behavior with an event that happened later and decided that the person's behavior caused the event (this faulty assumption of causality because an event follows another in time is called a post hoc fallacy).
Apophenia is so pervasive in mystical thinking that it would be useful to pause to ask what epistemological processes might lead to this phenomenon. As a case example, let's say a stargazer observed that on a certain day he saw a comet in the heavens and on the next day, an enemy invaded the kingdom or a fire broke out in the city. Certainly the appearance of a comet is an unusual thing. Certainly catastrophic events like fires and invasions are (relatively) unusual. Certainly the fact that the catastrophe came on the next day after the comet-sighting must also be strange and unusual. Therefore it must have been a sign! The next time the stargazer sees a comet or meteor, they'll probably believe a disaster will follow on the next day.
There are two epistemological steps to this apophenic induction (which was essentially arrived at from the first mode of Truth-seeking, passive observation). The first is the detection of a novel event or correspondence, i.e., the fact that a comet was sighted a day before a catastrophe happened. It is quite natural for alarms to go off in our minds when unusual events or relationships between events occur. In the brain, there are probably circuits (in the limbic system, possibly) that sound the alarm if a strange stimulus is seen. When the alarm is sounded, associative learning is stimulated (through the release of various diffuse-acting hormones and neurotransmitters). Thus, an association is learned between comets and bad-stuff happening. Perhaps this may be regarded as over-differentiation, meaning that such types of events are actually so common that the stargazer has no cause to consider the relationship between the comet sighting and the disaster to be unusual. But we'll give the stargazer the benefit of the doubt here because these correspondences will always seem unusual, even if statistically they are likely to happen in one form or another.
The second step is clearly in error, however, i.e., the step where the stargazer generalizes from this one strange occurrence to all future occurrences when a comet is sighted. Physiologically, what probably will happen the next time the stargazer sees a comet is that neurons which are involved in the representation of 'comet' in the brain will become active, and this will naturally trigger the 'disaster' representation neurons because the association was learned on the day of the disaster after the first comet-sighting. The fact that the disaster might have been a horrible thing that affected the stargazer directly might have also added additional emotional stimulation which encouraged the formation of the association, as strong emotions are known to enhance learning and memory.
Note that in the above example, the stargazer made an error from the conscious method of induction through passive observation. We can well imagine that once we start relying on more unconscious methods such as imagination and intuition that we may arrive at a lot of apophenic conclusions in pretty short order.
The key to avoiding these kinds of errors is to question one's beliefs regularly. Ask yourself: Why do I believe this? Do I have enough evidence? Is it logically consistent with other things I know? What discoveries might disconfirm my belief? This is the essence of critical thinking and it is hard even for skeptics to apply consistently sometimes. It is in some ways a grim and unpleasant business intellectually, certainly not as much fun as the more constructive part of thinking where you dream up ideas and piece them together into a beautiful framework that seems to explain everything. (But if a mind submits itself to this discipline of skeptical inquiry enough, indeed a thinker may train their intuition to effectively rule out ideas that are likely to be unsound. Skeptics, too, can have and make valuable use of intuition.)
But this is precisely where mystics go wrong. By failing to subject their intuitive or imaginative conclusions to the tests of observation and logic or even to question whether they have enough hard evidence for their beliefs, mystics end up arriving at specious conclusions from which they derive and build even more unsound structures. Mystics are essentially creative thinkers who lose sight of reality in their efforts to penetrate the Veil of Maya. Scorn of the surface often leads to penetrating insights, but also to overlooking things which disconfirm the thinker's theories. Mystics are eager to discover pretty metaphors and they often get too distracted by the beauty of their metaphors, their logical consistency, their scope of explanation, etc., to notice where their theories just don't fit what a duller, more surface-oriented mind would simply see. Worse, the ecstatically-aroused mystic often chooses to ignore the observations of others because they believe that the insights they've gained are "directly from God"!
Mystics over-generalize regarding the efficacy of their imaginations and intuitions, and they are blinded by the euphoria that naturally emerges during the process of their creative labors. As any artist will attest, the exercise of creativity is very satisfying emotionally and when the artist arrives at something which seems to reflect Truth or to have an impact which is emotionally intoxicating (i.e., it manifests Beauty), there is real pride and pleasure at having produced such a work. The mystic is an artist in metaphors regarding reality. He shares this with the poet. Mystics have a scientist's desire to get at the Truth and a poet's desire to express themselves in the eloquence of metaphor. The error that a mystic makes is in believing too literally his metaphors.
4.4 Philosophical Positions that Encourage Mystakes: the Plague of Mind/Body Dualism
One possible source of error that causes the mystic to be under-critical of imagination and intuition is that the mystic believes that imaginations and intuitions are epistemologically equivalent to observations of the world (which can cause them to believe that the information came "directly from God", as it were). Many mystics (including that famous psychologist and inquirer into matters spiritual, Carl Jung) believe that intuition springs from a collective unconscious. To them, this collective unconscious is a non-physical dimension which all human minds have access to. Therefore, having an intuition is a "direct observation" of an event in the collective unconscious, on par with direct observation of the material world by the sense organs. This mode of thinking assumes a dualist mind/body split: you have the world of matter and the world of mind.
Why make this split? It is, to my mind, a superfluous metaphysical construct. Mystics (particularly those of the Orient) are more correct, in my opinion, when they claim that "All is One". One world, matter and mind together. Mind becomes a dynamic process in matter. When we abandon the fruitless mind/matter duality, we can ask the question of what the physical mechanisms of mind are. We are also inclined to recognize the primacy of the importance of sensory observation in arriving at a proper picture of reality. Certainly, post-sensory conceptual integration (which is an essential feature of intuition) is also critical for arriving at an understanding of the world, but in a monist (i.e., One Universe) world-view, it will become plain that all data regarding external reality comes from the sense organs. We will not confuse the idea with the raw sensory data the idea is trying to capture.
Another philosophical tendencythough perhaps we would be hasty in calling it an errorthat the mystic has is a tendency towards the philosophical position of ontological idealism, i.e., the notion that ideas and consciousness govern existence. The opposing view, materialism, says that existence governs ideas and consciousness. This distinction is encouraged by the pernicious (and largely Western) mind/body dualism previously mentioned. When we presume that we have separate spirit and material worlds that influence one another, we are tempted to want to speculate on "who's the boss". If there must be a dualist split, materialism seems the more objective, sensible choice, since any ideas or conscious entities that exist, must therefore exist, and therefore fall into the governance of what it means for them to exist, i.e., existence. Idealism tends to lead to a view of the universe wherein universal law is subject to the arbitrary whims of deities, social convention, or even in the extreme case, my own personal whims (if I'm a solipsist, someone who believes I'm the only being that really exists (Scriabin was a bona fide example of one)). This subjectivism encourages the mystic to believe that miracles and magic are possible "so long as the Cosmic Mind wills it". Naturally, given such a view, strange and unusual coincidences will be interpreted far more often as "miraculous interventions" demonstrating the magic that is latent in the world.
(There are possible objective formulations for idealism, I think, but it would be beyond the scope of this essay to derive one.)
Having explored, at length, the errors of the mystic, we find ourselves faced with the questions of whether there is anything to be valued in mysticism and why mystical beliefs persist even in modern times. Both questions will be addressed later. First, however, we will explore the probable origins of mysticism.
There are no atheists in foxholes. Unknown
When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Unknown
For anything in human nature that is pervasive, there is an adaptive function (or at least was at one time). Ideas and beliefs which do not serve some purpose or fulfill some role may be pondered, but they will tend to be neglected or discarded with the passing of time. Mystical beliefs came into being for very good and understandable reasons which we will now explore.
Man lives in unprecedented times. For thousands of years, humankind's chief concern was getting enough food to feed the family or the tribe and making sure enough of their children would survive to carry on the endless cycle of birth, survival, and death. As a beneficiary of modern civilization, and having a college education, I have the option of finding a sit-down job which is a virtual guarantee that I can take slips of green paper into a supermarket and emerge with food for my table. If I get sick, I can find out, quite often exactly what is ailing me and, if necessary and possible, actually be treated for it. I don't have to worry about being eaten by wolves or lions, and I am also spared the terror and indignity of having hordes of armed men periodically descend upon my house to rob or in other ways harm me. (Not all parts of the world, even now, are so fortunate, on any of these counts.)
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Try to imagine yourself for a moment as a common man living in ancient times tending your own little plot of soil and hoping for the best. Most of the things you are reliant on are out of your control, in fact, at the caprice of things like the weather or whether the chief from the neighboring tribe is in a good mood (or whether your own chief is in a good mood or not). Not knowing anything about modern geology, psychology, or even the philosophy of the Greeks, you quickly find yourself praying and even believing in the gods you pray to. You find yourself praying to the Earth-Mother to give you a good harvest. You find yourself praying to the Sky-Father for rain. If you have problems with the neighbors, you find yourself praying to the god of war to give you strength in battle. You probably pray to a fertility goddess that your wife and child won't die in childbirth.
5.1 How Metaphors Work: Metaphor as Linguistic Model
Does this sound like mere desperation? Perhaps, but consider the knowledge primitive man lacks. When you consider this, you find that their beliefs and practice are much less foolish and even somehow rational. As was previously hinted at, man learns by generalization and by the application of analogy. To use a fairly modern example, if I want to understand the structure of an atom, I may end up falling back on the image of the solar system where the sun is the nucleus and the electrons are the planets. This image is faulty in many ways, but it allows me to get some basic idea about the structure of an atom.
When we discover some phenomenon we've never seen before or are presented with a new concept, we are obliged to understand these things on the basis of things we already understand. What we already understand becomes our language for explaining what we don't understand. This is the essence and the fundamental purpose of metaphor. Without metaphor, we would be forced to represent all ideas and understanding directly via concrete perceptions: pictures and sounds and feeling-states. This would be enormously cumbersome, requiring a huge array of remembered images.
(An interesting question I leave for another day: could there be metaphor without language? I would suspect that without language and symbols, metaphorical thinking would be impossible and we'd have to rely on perceptual associations alone.)
If we are fortunate (and we are) to have a knowledge of modern science and its world-view, when we encounter something we don't understand, we can use our science as the means of explaining it. The principles of science provide the metaphors we use. An honest scientist will recognize that science is about developing theoretical models of sensory experience. A model is a construct used for explaining something else. A model airplane isn't a real, functional airplane, but a smaller mockup that you can turn around in your hands and conveniently view the basic structure of the real airplane. All models abstract away features of the thing they are modeling. A model airplane (typically) leaves out the fuel and the working of the engines and the pilot in the cockpit, etc. All metaphors are models in language. When I say that a disease "must run its course", I am equating a disease to a runner in a race and the point I am trying to make is that the disease will have to finish uninterrupted as a runner would finish a race, and I'm saying that (for whatever reason) it isn't worth it to try to treat it. The progress of a disease is being modeled as a race. (It would be incorrect (in most cases, presumably) to model a race as the progress of a disease.) Other features of the progress of diseases (e.g., symptoms, causative agents, etc.) are abstracted away and the notion of a disease having a finite, though perhaps indeterminate duration falls into the "spotlight" (to use another metaphor).
5.2 Genesis of a Metaphor
So how is a metaphor born? (I will take imaginative and intuitive liberties and speculate. Science will have to ultimately determine whether my intuitions are valid or not.) It begins with observation or reflection. Some scene or image impinges on the mind. This may be from the senses or from the thinker's active imagination. In any case, there is an observation of similarity that is made between the image or scene under consideration and some existing concept. Most likely, the similarity-recognition happens beneath the level of a person's awareness and happens because there are other recently thought-of concepts which are still active in a residual way.
As a hypothetical example, let's say the idiom of diseases "running their course" didn't exist yet. How might I have coined the metaphor? Perhaps I had seen a race during the day or I was running or thinking about races for whatever reason. Perhaps I had been greatly engrossed in this for many hours. Whatever the case may be, there will probably be traces of residual activation of the concepts and images of races in my brain/mind.
Let's say later on I run into a friend of mine who has the flu and wonders if he should seek any kind of treatment. Now, probably the notion of disease enters my mind in the foreground activation of concepts. However, the residual activations are still there for races and racing. Now, the unconscious mechanisms in my mind grasp a similarity, i.e., that diseases and races have a beginning and an end. Seeing that similarity causes the race concepts in my mind to come to the foreground of activation again along with the disease concept. Temporal correlation becomes the source of the serendipitous insight.
Now both concepts are held in mind and I may even consciously analyze and compare the two, actively looking for similarities and differences. I think that my friend would be wasting his time by looking for a cure from the common flu, so I tell him that he should probably "let the disease run its course" (unless things get worse). Both my friend and I are struck by the newness and novelty of this expression and there may even be a little excitement in having coined a new phrase. Now the metaphor is in my mind and in my friend's mind and we may continue to spread it to other people until it becomes an idiom.
5.3 Daemons to Rule the World
With all of this in mind, let's return to our harried ancient friend. He is entirely ignorant of both the models provided by science and the metaphors that science suggests that would explain his world in a way that we would respect. But this does not mean that he is any stupider or less observant than we are: far from it! He sees many things that we in our modern existence are too busy to notice. He is intimate with plants and animals and the passing of seasons. He learns the rhythms of the earth, that he may eat tomorrow. He watches the motion of stars in the sky and may learn to predict when the next flood will happen based on this. Of course, he also is familiar with his society and other individuals, and how he ought to get along with his family and the chief and other men not of the tribe. These are the things he knows. Given his natural concerns, his curiosity, and the observations he has to work with, he will proceed directly and inexorably to what we call mysticism as a means of gaining an understanding and possibly control of his perilous world.
Jung made an extensive study of mystical and spiritual beliefs and their correlation with mental process. One of his conclusions was that mystical concepts come from a collective unconscious, a repository of symbols and ideas that all men share and draw from but are not immediately conscious of. It's a concept very similar to Plato's idea of forms; for Plato "ideal" objects existed in another dimension and when we perceived an object or had an idea, we were experiencing the emergence of the forms from this dimension. For Jung, the collective unconscious was in some dualistic mind-dimension divorced from matter, and therefore Jung's conception was mystical, and leads us to some questionable conclusions. We might suppose, for example, that we are born with innate ideas about ideal women and gods and forces.
However, taken as a metaphor, the collective unconscious may yet be useful. What is abstracted away by this notion (or perhaps what Jung misunderstood and/or misinterpreted) is the causal mechanism for the development and emergence of the ideas, images, and symbols that we see emerging time and time again throughout the world in all cultures and all times. What Jung observed was no accident because humans have generally the same neural architecture and many of the same formative experiences no matter what time period they live in or what culture they live in. Everyone has a father and a mother. Everyone lives on the same earth and under the same sky. Experiences such as sexuality, death, and birth and experiences shared by nearly all. We all see the sun and the moon and the stars. Most of us have experience with authority and authority figures. It is no surprise then, that most, if not all of the archetypes that Jung discovered are in relation to things that we all share as a part of our environment.
Primitive mankind may not have science guiding them, but they do have "archetypal" experiences by virtue of living on the same planet and having the same kinds of brains (which is the result of being of the same species). What primitive man has experience with will become his means of explaining the crazy world he lives in. If his crops aren't good this year, perhaps he didn't sacrifice enough to the Earth-Mother and she's angry. Perhaps he didn't perform the rituals correctly and that's the reason she's angry. As a matter of fact, many of these rituals probably made scientific sense and a person with a knowledge of modern science wouldn't think the primitive "Earth-husband" to be too foolish, though they might quibble about all of the incantations and supplications to the Great Mother. Francis Bacon noted that "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Obeying the Earth-Mother probably made our ancient ancestors' chances of survival much better.
For early man, the world was alive with daemons and spirits. Is it surprising? Nature is a very complex and unpredictable. People are complex and unpredictable. However, primitive man will have some rough idea how people operate from his own experience with others, so it will be nature that he will try to explain how the earth and the sky work given his understanding of how his society and people in general work. He will, quite naturally, anthropomorphize anything that is chaotic and unpredictable. When he works out for himself the concept of numbers, he'll start numericizing everything too. (Thus, the emergence of numerology later on, as well as mathematics proper.) When he works out the technology of the electronic computer, he'll start trying to explain human consciousness in terms of how computers operate. The key observation to be made is that it's all the same process. Metaphors regarding things that are understood better are used to explain things understood less well.
5.4 The Natural Selection Principle of Metaphors
Sometimes these metaphors will work and be useful. The Romans use to think that "bad air" was the cause of disease. Because the swamps had foul-smelling air, they therefore drained the swamps, and, lo! There was less disease! They didn't know about malaria germs and that mosquitoes carried these, but their "bad air" metaphor led them to doing the right thing. Sometimes, the metaphors (even the same ones that are sometimes useful) will fail and will be useless or harmful. If we believe "bad air" is the cause of disease, maybe what we need to do is suck all the air out of a person and pump in "good air". We might also miss the truth that poor sanitation is a source of disease whereas if we knew about germs and how they spread, we would be alerted to this danger.
Progress in knowledge becomes finding metaphors that are more useful and universally valid. Germ theory replaced the notions of "bad air", "bad blood", imbalance in the four humors, etc. All of the cases of disease covered by the old metaphors were covered better and more consistently and reliably under the new metaphor of germs: nasty critters that enter the body and attack it.
In light of this, most of the metaphors provided by mysticism's fruits are obsolete, at least as predictive models of how the world works. They were ideas that were useful in their day, but new understanding has rendered them embarrassing notions. We no longer seriously believe in tree-spirits or river-gods or that the sun is a god. We have other models and metaphors that explain trees and rivers and celestial bodies in more detail and precision.
5.5 Apophenia as Foe or Friend?
It is worth noting that there is often an element of apophenia in metaphor. The Earth and a human mother are two separate phenomena which each have their own internal structure. In some sense, it is a superficial coincidence that both Earth and womankind "give birth" to life, but this was probably one of the first observations that led to the Earth-Mother metaphor. Once this connection was made, mystics searched for and uncovered many other correspondences between Earth and woman, thus strengthening the metaphor. The utility of the Earth-Mother image was that a "husband of the Earth" might better understand the Earth through his understanding (or misunderstanding?) of woman. The myths and tales men and women made up about the Earth-Mother were probably good ways to teach planters when, how, and where to plant and tend their crops. They were dramatic and fanciful stories so they were easy to remember and pass on even before the advent of writing. They also gave people a sense of being connected with and understanding Nature which could all too often rise up and smite them with ruthless caprice.
The old gods are dead. (Well, mostly...) And yet, in stories, poetry, and drama and the popular imagination these metaphors live on. Anyone who attends church or believes in a religious faith is instinctively responding to some very ancient metaphors about the universe. Why is this so? The world-view of science is so much more accurate, reliable, and useful for explaining how the world works than the old metaphors.
6.1 Wishful Thinking
I think there are many reasons why the old metaphors hold on. I'll get the most cynical one out of the way first, and that is: wishful thinking. Most of us, myself included, really would like to know what our future holds so we can plan ahead and prepare. Wouldn't it be nice if I could find out by looking into some crystal ball?
There are a lot of "crystal balls" mystics throughout history have proposed: the crystal ball proper, the stars (astrology), Tarot cards, the human hand (palm-reading), divining rods, bones, entrails, ESP. Knowing the future: divination. Knowing things that are happening far off (clairvoyance, clairaudience). Knowing what happened in the remote past. Knowing what happens to my awareness after I die. Impossible or difficult knowledge is something people often seek out and mystics seem to provide it.
Impossible or difficult control of the world is another thing people often wish they had. (If I could just lay a spell on my boss and entice him to give me a raise... If I could just make people adore me...)
Another thing people want is justification for beliefs that serve to comfort them. (My life will go O.K. because I'm faithful to God and God will reward my faith. There is an afterlife. The person who gets away with evil in life will be punished in the afterlife.)
A desire for all of these things (knowledge, control, comfort) is understandable and, indeed, the sign of a normal and healthy psychology. The mistake is relying on faulty methods for achieving these things. The various branches of mysticism offer the prospect of a free-lunch or escape from dire circumstances. False hopes and disappointments follow when the talisman (or the metaphor or concept) doesn't work.
6.2 Easy, Intuitive, and Occasionally Pragmatic Explanations
Another reason the old metaphors hold on is that they are often more intuitive and easier to understand than the scientific explanations that have replaced them. The sciences of geology and biology give very precise, specific, and useful explanations about how the earth works, how its dynamics and processes proceed. But there is an incredible amount of information contained in these sciences: volumes of intricate details, in fact. Not everyone can devote their life to becoming a geologist and a biologist and if we'd have required that of primitive man, even if he'd had the raw information at his disposal, he would have died out long ago.
On the other hand, having the concept of the Earth-Mother and knowing the important farming or foraging rituals might allow you to survive in the wild. (It may be added that the poetic metaphor of the Earth as Great Mother encourages respect and good treatment of natural resources.) Theismthe idea of a personal Godmay be an obsolete metaphor, but it is very easy to understand and some insights can be gained by holding the metaphor. For example: if I believe that there is a personal God that gets angry and punishes wrong-doing in the world, then I will understand through this metaphor the very real truth that (usually) people that harm other people get punished in the real-world.
6.3 Answering Difficult Questions
Another area where mysticism retains a strong hold is in answering the questions that science can't answer. (This is related to the longing for impossible knowledge issue mentioned above, but worth more elaborate consideration.) Science is limited by what can be seen and measured. The goal of science is to explain everything that comes into our senses in terms of (a few, hopefully) unchanging theories and principles. Explanations for things that cannot be observed are beyond the scope of science (and I would say, true knowledge).
As an example, the very troubling question about what happens to my awareness when I die. My inner experience of awareness is not something that can (yet at any rate) be measured and observed by any instrument. Likewise, it is impossible for me to imagine not being aware. To imagine X is to have an awareness of X, albeit a self-generated X. I cannot, even using introspection observe unawareness or total lack of consciousness. Under anesthesia, there isn't even the memory of empty space or darkness; awareness is just missing. I'd like to believe that my awareness will persist in some form, but science (and even philosophy) really can't say anything conclusive about this.
Questions of ultimate (cosmic) purpose also are unanswerable through science. What is the universe for? What is the purpose of human existence? (Though, here I would argue that it will be possible for psychology to uncover principles for how a person might live a happy, prosperous life, if indeed these principles aren't already discovered.)
All this said, however, it cannot be overemphasized that the domain or potential domain of science is vast and has the potential to answer most of the most troubling questions. Most of our experience is derived from observation of the world and other people. As technology improves for neuroimaging, we will gain the ability to also observe the cognitive and emotional neurological operations that go on in our brains while we're thinking or feeling. This will lead to incredible breakthroughs in psychology and our attempts to understand the mind. Many old metaphors will be rendered obsolete when this happens and our understanding will be immeasurably better. As soon as the eye can see something, science has dibs on it.
6.4 21st Century Schizoid ManCat's foot iron claw
- King Crimson
There is another reason, though, and a deeply troubling one, why mystical metaphors are so enticing, even in the face of modern science. For the ancients, the world was alive and all things that they experienced were connected together in one neat and purposeful drama of being. Life was very hard, it's true, and the conditions that people lived in were generally appalling by modern standards. But I believe people probably had more of a sense of purpose (with the possible exception of those religions where the adherents decided that existence meant suffering and the purpose of life was to escape the "wheel of life" and to not exist.)
The trouble is that when you have explained the mechanisms that do all of the things the gods once did, you are left with a giant, mindless machine, blindly chugging away and dragging each of us along with it. (Actually, many of the ancient philosophies and religions of the East essentially agree with this, though the One is dressed up with mystical symbols such as Yin and Yang.) Gone is the idea of a universal purpose and the comfort of divinely-administered justice. The universe is made of a lot of dead things moving in a dance whose choreography is set and unchangeable. Life is but the dancing of dead things and this is a terrible thing for most people to accept. How upsetting to draw back the veil of life and mystery and see nothing but gears and levers!
The truth is that science offers nothing to allay the terror of this notion. It cannot because science's goal is to uncover mechanisms and laws. Modern man, if he chooses (as I do) to reject religion and literal belief in mystical principles, has nothing to fall back on but other people and the immediate necessities of life and must therefore (in theory) come to grips with the notion of the Universal Machine. In order to face this with grace and dignity, each person will have to be ready to choose their own metaphors for existence.
In practice, the problem of purpose usually solves itself. Society, custom, biological instinct, and personal obligations generally provide ready-made Life-Purposes. We find ourselves caught up in our daily lives and we don't worry about such abstract ideas as the Fixed Dance of Destiny. However, culture in the modern world is moving at a frenetic pace and it's easy to get lost in the changing scenery and miss the underlying lay of the land. When things (and people) move too quickly, we lose our sense of being anchored to a reliable reality. We are like sailors caught out in the open sea, alienated and lost and helpless because we can't see how we're connected with things and how we can make a difference. We're drowning in a metaphoric sea of information which is often difficult to digest (to use a somehow nausea-inducing metaphor).
This lack of connection and sense of underlying structure and purpose are the chief ills faced by the affluent and peaceful parts of the modern world. This is the reason people who don't consider themselves superstitious flock into churches, and why I think so many people turn to New Age mysticism. They want answers, control, and above all comfort and a sense of purpose. Whether they know it or not, they're looking for the metaphors that will make their lives better. The cost to these people is most likely delusion. Delusion can be better than suffering, I grant, but I would prefer to find a means to succor my suffering that is in accordance with reality.
I think there are answers to this conundrum, answers that needn't delude the mind with false hopes and untenable ideas. Between science and philosophy, I think there already are answers that could relieve this modern alienation-sickness that so many of us have if we could and would just follow their lead.
What science is missing, in my view, is a link to the personal and the sentient. Through the physical sciences, huge strides have made and in biology as well. Our understanding of the mechanisms of life and the universe are vastly greater than anything Aristotle could have hoped for or imagined. The great frontier, however, is the individual human mind and its functionality. Learning how our neurological processes give rise to the phenomena of cognition and feeling will allow us to learn a great deal more how to improve our own turbulent inner lives.
There remains the question of what have been the contributions of mysticism: both the good and the bad. First the bad.
7.1 The Bad
Mysticism has left us with a din of old concepts and metaphors of varying, but uncertain utility. This is bad because when a person latches on to obsolete concepts, their attention is diverted away from the more accurate, precise concepts that will lead to more accurate and precise predictions and understandings in the world. For the poetically disinclined or for the person trying to really understand the nuts and bolts of the world, mysticism's metaphors are blind alleys that postpone discovery of the truth and waste precious intellectual time and resources.
Mystical beliefs can lead to failed predictions and false hopes and expectations. When the ritual doesn't work, mystics often come up with ad hoc (i.e., after-the-fact) reasons why it failed to achieve the predicted results. Unfortunately, these modifications to their theories are often no saner than the original theories, so more time is wasted on failures and subsequent modification to the essentially specious construct.
Mystical convictions can also lead, in conjunction with other negative aspects of human nature, to vicious persecutions and crimes on a grand scale. Some of the most horrific crimes against the innocent were committed by the Catholic Church against supposed "heretics" and "witches" during the Middle Ages, all in the name of Faith and "spiritual Truth". (Not that other religions have their hands clean, either. The ancient Hebrew march into Canaan doesn't exactly sound like an enlightened settlement.) The Spanish Inquisition may not have been Jesus' (or even the Church's) original idea of "love thine enemies" but it was a natural consequence of a group of "true believers" deciding that their beliefs are directly from God and therefore they need to be forced upon everyone else.
On that note, the very idea of "divine-inspired Truth" is both ethically and epistemologically dangerous. It is dangerous epistemologically because it forces blindness on the believer, forces them to accept specious ideas "on faith" even in the face of direct contradictory observation. It is ethically and politically dangerous because any charismatic charlatan megalomaniac can appeal to Divine-inspiration (as well as Divine-right to rule) and get a whole population (or a large segment of the population) stirred up and doing monstrous things in the name of "righteousness" (as is evidenced by the recent premature collapse of the World Trade Center).
7.2 The Good
And yet, not all of mysticism's legacy deserves curses and execration. Metaphors, like technology, can be used for bad or good.
In the realm of art, there is much positive use for mystical metaphors. In fact, in my opinion, when one looks at the greatest works of art: in literature, music, or in the visual arts proper, they are rich in metaphor and generally rich in very ancient symbols and metaphors at that. The best art reflects the archetypal nature and desires of man as a species. The most moving art speaks to you as a person, and the ancient symbols and metaphors remain dramatically powerful and communicative. As a poet or an artist, you can learn a great deal about how to speak to your audience by closely examining that wild and chaotic world of archetypes that the mystics built. The symbols they use are, to a large extent, eternal. As long as we have day and night and earth and sky and mother and father, these symbols will have deep and powerful meaning to your audience. (Be on the lookout for new symbols, however! History continues to create new symbols, so don't limit yourself to the current set of archetypes. Consider that mystics could never have formulated the 'chariot' archetype until the wheel had been invented.)
Related to this use in art is the value of the intuitive understanding of existence that can be fostered by these metaphors. There is much wisdom that can be gained by looking over the products of religions and mystics because there are virtually eternal truths hiding behind their images and symbols. As a source of wisdom, this is (mostly) a different fountain than philosophy. To use a metaphor, philosophy is like the Sun-God and metaphor-gazing is like the Moon-Goddess. Philosophy is generally very deductive, analytical, abstract, and rigorously logical in its approach. In its idealized form, philosophy involves finding general principles and then deriving conclusions that (hopefully) match reality. Metaphor contemplation is very inductive, synthetic, concrete, and intuitive and logically loose in its approach. When pondering a mystical symbol or metaphor, the best approach, I think, is to ask: how is this true, and how is it false or tenuous? Metaphors are only good if some truth can be gathered from them. Fortunately, most of the old mystical metaphors have some grain of truth in them that comes from the long experience of many cultures and individuals.
Finally, I would say that mystical metaphor can be a relief for emotional suffering, particularly for those who a hard-boiled realist would say are doomed. When a doctor is working with a patient and sees that the situation is hopeless, he doesn't necessarily tell the patient that (if he's a compassionate doctor). If someone is suffering terribly in their life and finds comfort in the church and faith in God, I do not begrudge that person their beliefs. (When I begrudge a person their mystical beliefs is when they try to force them on me or when I see that their beliefs are leading them to ruin their lives.) Speaking for myself, I think there is a point beyond which I'd rather be insane or deluded than in torment. In my deepest heart, I'd like to think that there is a non-illusory comfort to be had for any pain, but I'm not sure that this really exists.
One of the positive insights mysticism has to offer usand perhaps this is the primary insightis this importance of abstractions. Understanding requires more than just remembering sensory data. At heart, what the mystic truly seeks is the Truth lying under the surface of appearances. The notion of surface appearances being a veil of unreality over the underlying essence of reality has an element of truth to it. Mystics are wrong when they reject the evidence of their senses, but the Veil of Maya metaphor is apt in that abstraction and conceptualization are required to make sense of the vast array of sensory data that we receive at every moment in our lives. Furthermore, as Kant noted, the structure of our minds and the concepts and categories that are within define the reality that we essentially live in. We cannot know the outside world except through the filter of our senses and concepts, and mere sensation is insufficient to account for the awareness we have of physical objects and the passing of time.
In some sense, reality is indeed ruled by abstractions, by ideas, at least our personal realities. The universe must have some particular structure, this structure including the structure of our own cognitive and sensory apparatus and the structure of objects outside us. The particularities of this structure, the patterns that are sub-patterns in the whole organic structure of reality: these are the abstractions, the ideas the mystic has sought after. These patterns govern our perception of reality: space and the flow of time, and the very structure of matter.
Kant notwithstanding, however, we need to understand that sensation is the ultimate basis for a person's perception of these underlying abstractions, whether it be sensation of the outer world or sensation of our body's internal state. Most mysticsand indeed most philosopherswere not fortunate enough to be born into times when it was possible to study the brain and its mechanisms. It is my firm belief that we will in time give the ultimate lie to mind/material dualism by uncovering the physical mechanisms of mind, i.e. the neurological processes that give rise to consciousness and intelligence.
When we have done this, we will have gone a long way towards the ideal goal of the mystic: to find the Truth beneath the surface of appearances. The concepts, models, and metaphors science uncovers will be abstract as all concepts, model, and metaphors indeed are. You cannot merely look at the world passively and arrive at the Truth, and Truth cannot be understood when it is viewed as just a mere chaos of sensory data. This recognition, I think, is the main debt we owe to the mystics.
Blake, W. The Complete Poems. Ed. A. Ostriker. England: Clays Ltd, 1977.William Blake was both an artist and a poet and his creations reflect the sensibilities of a mystic as well. Ample commentary is given in this volume. Throughout the corpus of Blake's poetry, one can see a whole mythology coming into being. The main body of this mythology is exposited in The Four Zoas which was an unfinished epic.
Bowers, F. Scriabin: A Biography. 2nd ed. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996.A biography of the late 19th, early 20th century Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. A fascinating portrait of a mystically-inclined artist. He was an interesting mannot a person of outstanding character, but psychologically interesting.
Coleridge, S. T. Poems. Ed. J. Beer. 1963. Rutland, Vermont: Everyman's Library, 1991.Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet in the late 18th and early 19th century. The anecdote about Kubla Khan is given here.
Durant, W. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1961.A chronological survey of the big names in Western philosophy (including Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche). Gives a good overview on what these thinkers believed.
Flew, A. A Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.My reference for definitions in philosophy. In some sense, it is like a small encyclopedia because there are extensive entries on particular philosophers, schools of thought, etc.
Gray, E. A Complete Guide to the Tarot. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.A slim little book explaining the symbolism of the Tarot (the Rider-Waite pack, at least), how to do various spreads, etc. Symbolism from the Tarot is also related to numerology, the Kabalah, and astrology. The Tarot can be looked at as being a catalogue of mystical metaphors and symbolisms, or in Jungian terminology, archetypes. A good introduction for people who want to get a good look at the structure and content of occultist mysticism.
Hertz, J., Krogh, A., and Palmer, R. G. Introduction to the Theory of Neural Computation. Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.A fairly mathematical treatment of neural networks. The PDP volumes provide a more discursive and intuitive introduction to neural networks and their motivations.
Jung, C. G. The Basic Writings of C. G. Jung. Ed. V. S. de Laszlo, Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton University Press, 1990.A selection of Carl Jung's writings taken from the huge and sundry corpus of his work. For those unfamiliar with Jung, the following commentary might be useful. Jung was a Swiss clinical psychologist who was a protégé of Freud's in his earlier days. During the course of his career treating patients, he noticed a number of recurring patterns that were very interesting: certain patterns of thought that were similar to the patterns of thought in religions and mystical practices throughout all cultures and all times in history. Jung was himself rather mystically inclined and was widely read in philosophy and comparative world religions, so he was in a position to notice these things and as a psychologist try to theorize how the processes in the mind related to these spiritual images and phenomena. His most famous theory is the theory of a collective unconscious which is shared by all human beings and from which ideas (i.e., archetypes) regularly emerge and assert themselves in the conscious mind. Freud was alarmed at Jung's preoccupation with mysticism; Jung, for his part, found Freud's theories of repressed memory wanting, so the two had a falling out. To my mind, most of Jung's theories suffer from lack of attention to causal mechanisms and apophenia (see definition above), however, I think we are indebted to Jung for inaugurating a serious inquiry into the relationship between mind and spiritual beliefs (an inquiry I am pursuing from a more modern perspective in this essay). Moreover, Jung's discoveries have enormous import in art and literature because many of the primary symbols and archetypes he identified are ubiquitous in art.
King Crimson. "21st Century Schizoid Man." In the Court of the Crimson King. EG Records Ltd., 1969.The particular song portrays a deeply alienated, technology-inundated neurotic. It was meant to be a warning, I think. The sentiment and message is somewhat clichéd counter-culture talk, but unfortunately, I think Peter Sinfield was right about the schizoid part.
Lewis, B. and Pucelik, F. Magic of NLP Demystified. Portland, Oregon: Metamorphous Press, 1990.Has a relevant discussion in Chapter 1 about the universal modeling procedures of generalization, deletion, and distortion. Neurolinguistic programming is rather controversial in the psychological community and many of its empirical claims have yet to be verified as statistically significant (e.g., the accessing cues). However, NLP contains a number of useful insights, I think, about how knowledge is represented (through the sensory modalities) and how language is used to model experience.
Michelet, J. Satanism and Witchcraft. Trans. A. R. Allinson. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press.This book is a study largely of the persecution of women during the Middle Ages, most particularly those believed to be witches. The picture that emerges of the Church here is highly unflattering, to put it mildly. It is contended in this book that the studies of the human body done by witches and their herb-lore were actually important to the advance of medical science.
Peikoff, L. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1992.Chapter 1 discusses idealism vs. materialism from an Objectivist perspective. This book is a systematic exposition of Objectivism as formulated by Ayn Rand. Although, I'm not a "card-carrying Objectivist"some of you might know what I'm talking about hereI think highly of the effort that has gone into trying to formulate a self-consistent, comprehensive philosophy. Objectivism generally succeeds in being both consistent in its logic and structure and comprehensive in its scope. It often gets bad press in academic circles, but this is probably more due to the rather strident personalities of Ayn Rand and many of her followers than due to flaws in Objectivism's logic. In my view, Objectivism's most sound contribution is in epistemology, although the perspective it provides in ethics, politics, and esthetics is at least worth pondering.
Rand, A. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. Meridian, 1990.This is Rand's own treatise on epistemology. Many insights are within as well as some good illustrative examples. I borrowed her example of black swans in order to explain the notion of over-differentiation. (Differentiation and integration the two main concept-forming operations Objectivism posits in epistemology.)
Rumelhart, D., McClelland, J., et al. Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition. 2 vols. The MIT Press, 1986.The PDP volumes are the classic treatises on artificial neural networks. Neural network research existed prior to the 1980's, but it was with this research at UCSD that really put neural network research on the map. Chapter 1 of the first volume gives a very good, and largely non-mathematical introduction to the whole connectionist perspective on cognitive science.
The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Critical Survey of Questionable Therapies, Eccentric Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. Visited May 3, 2002, from http://skepdic.com/ . –An excellent source for any of the dirt on both current controversial topics and well-known follies and fallacies. I ran into the definition of 'apophenia' on this site.
Spinoza, B. Ethics. Ed. and trans. G. H. R. Parkinson. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1989.Spinoza's magnum opus as a philosopher in the form of formal "geometric" proofs. He begins by deriving that the universe is one substance which he calls God, and that this substance is, in its activities bound by causality. (Spinoza was a determinist, and for him, "God" was not a being with arbitrary "free-will" and abilities to change reality.)
Toffler, A. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.Classic futurist literature. The concept of "future shock" is quite relevant to the problem of why individuals in modern civilization are often so lost and bewildered. The central idea of the book is that the speed of change is accelerating and leaving everyone behind causing a phenomenon similar to culture shock, only it is chronic because the world is constantly changing.
Webster's New World Dictionary & Thesaurus. Accent Software International. Macmillan Publishers, 1998.My source for dictionary definitions.